The Boss of the boat was standing over the little black stove pouring the drink into enamel cups. His face glowed in the light of the fire. The man with the pock-marked face was squatted Oriental-fashion on the floor. With his face to the lighted candle the man with the tremendously dark countenance was leaning against the water-keg in the corner. His skin was like leather and he never washed. They called him Calcutta because it had been said that a man with a face like his could only come out of the Black Hole of Calcutta. As he leaned against the keg his smouldering eyes were levelled on Hike the driver.
Hike was at the end of the cabin, fumbling at the bunk. He was muttering to himself. The candle did not throw much light on his stunted figure as he stooped over the bunk.
«Hike», the Boss said, «you only drank one fill. Have another».
Hike did not answer, or even turn round. Hike was deaf.
«Hike!» the Boss cried.
Hike only muttered to himself.
Calcutta stooped over to the grate, picked up a piece of coal and took aim. It caught Hike on the head. He turned round, his eyes shining in the semi-gloom like the eyes of a cat.
The Boss laughed a little.
«Drink!» he said. He held out the cup. Hike made no move. Calcutta reached out for the cup and took it to Hike.
Hike shook his head.
A hand shot back and forth suddenly, and Hike got the fluid in the face. It flowed down his cheeks, drops running from his chin and nose with a quick little patter to the floor.
Calcutta turned away from him, laughing. Then the Boss and the man with the pock marked face seconded the laugh. Hike spluttered and took a step forward, raising a threatening, feeble arm. A scowl most terrible crept into the expression of Calcutta’s face as he saw the threat. Hike caught the look and the feeble arm fell. He went over to the bunk and wiped his face in the blanket, then folded it under his arm and went up the little step-ladder through the opening on to the deck.
The sky was alive with stars. The canal was still and cool, the country about silent and frozen. He went over to the plank that served as gangway to the bank. It looked like a streak of silver ribbon with a crust of small jewels sparkling upon it. Hike stepped on it nervously and walked down for the bank.
«By God! He’s tumbled in», the Boss swore when he heard the stifled cry and the splash in the water. He ran up the steps, the pock-marked man after him. Calcutta followed leisurely, whistling softly to himself.
Hike was pulling his shrunken body up on the bank when the Boss reached out a helping hand to him. When he stood up Hike was trembling all over, the shining water running down from his clothes. He still held the blanket.
«He’s very wet», the pock-marked man said, «and it is freezing».
«Come back to the boat», the Boss urged.
Hike, holding his arms out stiffly, stood shivering and miserable in two little pools of water gathering about his feet. He looked up at the boat. The figure of Calcutta loomed on the deck, looking down silently on them. Hike hesitated.
«Hike!» Calcutta shouted suddenly. He shouted the nickname in a derisive voice.
Hike turned away and walked down the road, the clothes and boots soaking and slopping about him at every step. He left a little streak of water in his wake.
«He’s gone to the stable», said the Boss.
«Ay», Calcutta agreed, «he’ll lie down in the stable».
The boat started on its journey in the morning as the day was breaking. Hike came up in the dim light, leading the horse from the stable, the whip under his arm. The rope was hooked to the boat, and the men heard Hike urging the horse to the start.
«Gee-up, gee-up!» they heard him cry. The hoofs of the horse struck into the hard ground, and the boat began to move slowly. They had a long journey before them. Hike held aloof from the boatmen at meal times. They heard him coughing and barking all day as he stepped on the bank with the horse. A few times the cough became so violent that he missed the pace and the horse turned his head to him. Hike had to put out his hand and seek support from the rein, catching it near the bit. The horse inclined his head, giving sanction to the support. When they changed horses Hike felt no loss in sympathy; all the horses along the route were accustomed to the touch of his hand.
«He has the rotten old cough back again», the Boss said, as he stood on the boat.
Calcutta leaned by the funnel, looking at Hike, whistling softly whenever he saw the little man doubled up with the cough. When Hike had to stop dead once, the horse stopped too, neighing. Then Calcutta’s voice sang out from the boat, half in derision, half in command:
«Gee-up!» he shouted.
At the word the horse stepped forward with straining steps until he felt the pull of the rope. With the same instinct Hike staggered after him. He kept a hold of the rein the rest of the journey, his hand so close to the mouth of the brute that it was covered with froth.
When the day’s journey was ended Hike walked away with the horse to the stable.
«He’s going to doss in the stable again», the Boss said, and Calcutta’s face relaxed, showing a gleam of his teeth.
When the day broke there was no sign of Hike. The Boss went down and called out his name near the stable.
There was no response. He went ever to the stable and pushed open the door. A breath of hot, foul air met him. He could not see very well. He could only discern the outline of the wooden partition that divided the stable, and trace the rails of the manger against the wall. The horse stirred his iron-shod hoofs on the cobbles. He saw the animal standing to one side.
«Hike!» the Boss cried.
The horse stirred again, turned his head, and neighed a little. The Boss saw the two little puffs of his breath coming out like steam to the light from the shadows where he stood. He stepped over, arid laid a hand on the animal’s back. The brute was trembling.
The Boss saw the short, stunted figure huddled on the bed of half-rotted straw at his feet. He stooped down and caught a glimpse of Hike’s face. It looked white and prominent, a ghastly visage, in the semi-gloom. He had put out a hand to feel it when a thought struck him.
What if Hike were dead?
He drew back suddenly. The strange silence in the stable was ominous. The place had an atmosphere of sordid tragedy.
What made the brute tremble? Suspicion became a certainty. He walked back to the boat.
«Hike is lying in the stable», he said. «There is no stir in him. I think he is dead».
The pock-marked man raised his cap, and made the sign of the Cross. Calcutta gave a snort of contempt.
«I think he had no friends», the Boss said at last. He spoke of Hike in the past tense.
«No, he had no friends. How could he?» Calcutta said. Something in his tone made the other look up. The dull eyes were straight ahead on the canal. The Boss, in a vague way, thought he caught some revelation in the dark face. He saw in it an implacable hatred the sort of hatred that haunts a broken life.
«What do you know of Hike?» he demanded.
«Nothing», the other replied shortly.
«Go for a priest and doctor. Make a report at the police barrack», the Boss said to the pock-marked man.
«I will». The man went down to the cabin to put on his coat.
The Boss walked down the deck, leaning against the tiller at the stern, looking into the yellow water. He gave himself up to one of those meditations that come to people when they are suddenly faced with death, the mysterious death that comes with stealthy steps. The Boss shuddered a little as he remembered the ghastly face of Hike in the dark stable. Then he began to ponder on the strangeness of life and the penalty of death it carried. He got no nearer to the heart of the mystery than the philosophers of the ages.
After a little time he was conscious that Calcutta was standing beside him. The conversation that followed was conducted in lowered voices.
«Do you know what, Boss?»
«I was married once».
«I was. The woman came to me in a roundabout kind of way. She was promised to another. She left him for me. I don’t know much about the man. She did not speak often of him».
«That would be natural. She wanted to forget».
«The thing that came easiest to her was to forget. She forgot that man, and the day came when’ she forgot me».
«That was strange».
«It was. She forgot me because she left me. She went from me to another».
The Boss had an idea that all this was irrelevant, but that it at least threw some light on the ugly, brooding manner of Calcutta.
«I’m sorry for you», said the Boss awkwardly.
The other laughed, a short hard laugh. «Oh, I did not mind», he said. “It was no great concern to me when she left».
«What I felt was, she left me for a man that I had a hatred for. She left me for a man that made me feel so little. The man she went to was Hike».
«So that is why you have been down on Hike?»
«I hounded him all right. I came on this boat to hound him. He knew it. I only stayed on the boat because I wanted to see him dying on the bank, coughing up his inside. I was never so happy as I was yesterday when the spasms were smashing him up. He knew all that very well, and I think it helped to kill him. It was that woman who made me hate him above all living things».
«And what became of the woman? Where is she now?»
«Where is she?» the other repeated, his eyes following up the narrow neck of water. «How do I know. But I hope she’s in hell».
He walked back to his accustomed place by the funnel.
The pock-marked man raised a cry from the bank. His hand was pointing down the road. The Boss followed its direction. He gave a muttered cry. Walking up from the stable, leading his horse, was Hike.
He raised his head as he came to the boat. His colour was sickly, his eyes pathetic. But the Boss thought he saw a dumb doggedness, a smouldering defiance, in the expression as the eyes wandered to the figure of the dark man standing by the funnel.
«I overslept myself», said Hike. «I had a little headache».
The boat moved on after a time. Hike did not cough so much that day. The sun was shining pleasantly from the sky; there was warmth in the air. The scowl in the face of the man by the blackened funnel was deeper.
The Boss had a few words with Hike when opportunity offered. He had a difficulty in thinking of the half -hunched, miserable person that stood before him as figuring in such an affair as Calcutta had mentioned. But then, he reflected, who has ever been able to account for the ways of men?
«Hike», he said, in his blunt manner, «were you ever married?»
Hike raised the pathetic, large eyes that often go with half -deformed people. A sentimental look came into them, heightening their strangeness.
«I was and I was not», Hike said, then coughed.
His gaze wandered to The Golden Barque and the sinister figure that stood beside the funnel. «There was one that was everything to me that a wife should be», Hike confided, the note of sentimentality more pronounced.
«Now, that was very nice», the Boss said, for he knew he could venture some mild humour where there was so much emotion.
Hike’s eyes grew humid. «She was an angel», he said, a catch in his voice.
The Boss, who was healthy-minded, controlled his florid features.
«Where is she now? » he asked, half casually.
Hike hesitated. He had to bring his mind back from a riot of sentiment. He had to dispose of something in his throat.
«She went», he admitted at last, half enigmatically. Then he added, «I hope she is in heaven».
The Boss walked back to the boat. The thing that was a while ago a very tragic business had begun to show the underlap of comedy. When he found himself near Calcutta she said, still casually», I know where that wife of yours is now».
«I don’t want ‘to be told», the other answered. «My hope is that she’s in hell».
«Well, she’s not. She’s in heaven».
Calcutta laughed hoarsely.
«I might have guessed it», he said.
«That the devil himself could not hold her when he got her».
The Boss walked down the deck. He gazed upon the sun that was growing low in the sky. Some great trees were standing out stark on the landscape. When he turned back again he saw Hike stepping beside the horse on the bank, something in his half humps that was stubborn, distorted, grotesque. Calcutta was by the funnel, his eyes smouldering, unblinking, implacable, as they followed the steps of the driver beside the horse. He was the sleuth hound of the strange, silent hunt.
The Boss pondered on the ways of men, and again there was no explanation, no solution of the problem. The underlap of comedy was gone. In the rose light of the falling day the sense of a human tragedy dragged out on the stretch of yellow water was uppermost to his mind.
He shrugged his shoulders as he put out his hand for the shaft of the tiller.